29 July 2011

Money Laundering

I recently stumbled upon a fun new blog, austin cubed, which chronicles the process of designing (and soon building) a modern home on a vacant lot in our neighborhood. Although the owners' style couldn't be more different from our own, our green sensibilities are extremely similar, and it has been fun to compare notes on various aspects of the process. Earlier this week, a post about clothes dryers (specifically, how much energy they waste by diverting conditioned air out of the house) got me thinking about our own dryer.

Having sold our old washer and dryer with our condo, we bought a new dryer during the year we were renting during construction. Although gas is certainly more efficient than electric, we decided to go with an electric dryer on the theory that it would be free to power once we got solar panels (more on our recent solar decision-making process soon). But that doesn't change the fact that, during the summer, our dryer takes cooled air from our living space, heats it up, and sends it outside through the dryer vent...which then creates a subtle vacuum effect that brings in new warm air from the outside (that then needs to be cooled down again).

The house we tore down had a clothesline, and back when we bought it, I thought it would be neat to use one. It was old and icky, though, and we took it out during demolition. But back then, I had thought that we would put up a new one sometime. (Probably after we replace the fence. Seems like you should have a fence before hanging your undies out to dry.) And then a gazillion other things ended up on our to-do list, and although we actually do air dry a lot of our clothes on a rack in the mudroom, the clothesline idea kind of fell off our radar.

Until that Austin Cubed post. The clothesline is still waaaay down on our list of priorities, but I've started thinking about where to put it and have been collecting ideas on Pinterest. (Don't have a Pinterest account? If you ever tear out pictures or articles from magazines and would like to be able to do the same thing online without having to bookmark a bunch of links, Pinterest lets you do that, cataloging everything in an easy-to-find way. And now that tons of people have Pinterest accounts and are busily "pinning" images every day, searching for something like "clotheslines" right there on the site yields lots of pictures that other folks have already pulled in.)

So, after looking at dozens of clotheslines, I've found a few that I like, and they all happen to be pretty much the same style.

(Source unknown.)

(Source: Johanna-Vintage, a Swedish blog! Written in Swedish!)

Does that one come with the lake? Probably not. So something like this is most likely what we're going for:

(Source: Livs Lyst, a Norwegian blog! Written in Norwegian!)

That all assumes that we actually decide to put up a post for the clothesline. It's also possible that we would simply run the line from the house to the fence, or to another part of the house. But since I do want to have the option of drying clothes in fresh air (not to mention without using any energy but my own), and it's nice to have a head start on thinking through the possibilities.

Oh, and the title of this post, Money Laundering? It was inspired by this fun Pinterest image:

(Source: Lists O'Plenty)

27 July 2011

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

It has come to my attention that some of my favorite little ladies in the world are in the process of decorating their shared bedroom. And I'm doing everything in my power to persuade them to let me help.

They (er, their mom) had already done a lot of the work before I learned about the project. They have picked out this quilt (two of them) from Pottery Barn Kids:

And these sheets (also from PBK):

The quilt and the sheets are so sweet together:

Just about as sweet as my little friends, in fact.

They are deciding whether they should paint the bedroom, and if so, what color. I haven't seen the current color, but I say YES YES YES YES YES. Just 'cause a new bedroom deserves a fresh, new color. I like this buttery yellow:

It's very similar to the color of our current guest room, which is the exact same color as our old guest bedroom (Sherwin-Williams Parchment).

But I also like this green:

(Boy, does Pottery Barn style their stuff amazingly for the catalog/website.)

I like this pink, too, but one of my little "clients" doesn't like pink, so I guess it's out:

But maybe, just maybe, she would let me hang a little valence made from this striped fabric:

(That's the Parchment paint swatch on top. If you're wondering.)

I've actually been gradually collecting ideas for a friend who may be having a baby in the not-so-far-off future. In my mind, it's a girl baby, and I'm tickled to pieces at the prospect of decorating a baby girl nursery. It was with that in mind that I first fell in love with the striped fabric, as well as this fun Etsy print (from iAlbert) that I think would also be lovely in a bright pastel floral room:

But alas -- so far, no nursery to decorate, so I haven't actually bought either of these things. But in thinking about the girls' room, I realized that I had a few accessory items from our old guest room (which was sweeter, prettier, and a bit more country than our current guest room) that don't really have a place in the new house. And I realized that these items might be perfect for the girls' room. (And, truth be told, the main purpose for this post is to show their mom what those items are -- out of sight of the girls, so if they don't fit into Mom's vision, I haven't gone and gotten her ducklings all excited about working 'em into the room.)

So here you go, N.:

Two shelves that look like flowers. (The bottom half of the flower attaches to the wall, and the other half sticks out as the shelf.) Each about ten inches across. Seriously adorable.

Two yellow boxy shelves with scalloped edges. One is a little larger than the other -- maybe seven and eight inches.

And a small picture frame. Fits a 3-1/2 x 3-1/2" picture -- just big enough for three grinning faces.

It's not my call, of course -- I'm still just hoping to get to participate -- but I think their chosen bedding begs for lots of fun, colorful accessories, and I'd love to see these things find new life in the girls' room.

Along with a pretty, sweet, girly chandelier, maybe?

26 July 2011

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

When I read a headline last week about the Gates Foundation's effort to reinvent the toilet, I thought that sounded like a cool "green" project. Since we got all worked up about finding the best low-flow toilets for our house, I was excited to see what innovations might be on the horizon in this arena. With a word like "reinvent," it had to be something more than simply an even lower-flow toilet. A new take on composting toilets that non-hippies could get on board with, maybe? I don't know the numbers on how much water goes to flushing in Austin, in Texas, in the United States, or in the world, but I know it adds up. Reducing our total flush volume could go a long way toward our overall water needs.

But the Gates Foundation's mission is actually so much bigger and more important than that.

Their focus is on rethinking the toilet so that they don't need to be tied in to expensive plumbing infrastructure, which most of the world doesn't have and can't afford. ( And even if it were feasible to bring plumbing to the far corners of the world, all that today's toilets and the pipes that take waste away actually do is move waste from here to away, where it remains toxic...just farther away from where most of us live.) If there were a way to deal with human waste in third world countries, a host of diseases caused by unsanitary living conditions could be virtually eradicated.

The basic design of the toilets we all know and love (?) has been the standard for over 200 years. Obviously, they have improved over the years, and while they were once strictly for the rich, they are now available to virtually everyone in the developed world, getting them (and the required plumbing, and sufficient water) to the rest of the world just isn't a feasible goal. The Gates Foundation has granted over $40 million to eight universities to try to develop whole new methods of treating waste through reinvented toilets and waste management systems, and recipients of the grants are taking this challenge seriously. So far, efforts are underway to use a process of "dehydration, filtration, and smoldering" to sanitize waste, as well as various plans to turn waste into electricity. Read more about it here.

Now two more thoughts on related topics.

First, the Gates Foundation's initiative reminds me of One Laptop Per Child's equally awe-inspiring $100 laptop project, which sought to bring about the development of a viable $100 laptop design so that computers could be brought to students across the globe. Several good designs came out of the project, and the (extremely rugged) laptops have been finding their way into classrooms in the far corners of the world for the past few years.

Second, my best friend from college, Andrea, lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, in this sweet cabin...

...with an outhouse instead of an indoor bathroom. Yes, you read that right. An outhouse. Apparently it's a pretty fancy heated outhouse, but still. Fairbanks, which apparently has lots of houses with detached, heated outhouses (something about the ground being frozen, I think), can get down to, like, 20 degrees below during the winter, so heat in the 'house is pretty critical...especially in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, I bet Andrea still thinks twice about drinking anything in the evening. Maybe, after the Gates Foundation finishes distributing its reinvented toilet to the third world, they'll send one to Andrea.

22 July 2011

Harvest Festival

Our basil has grown beyond our wildest expectations.

It comes up to my knees. Lately, it's been putting out a lot of flowers, and while I've been pinching most of them off, between the heat and the cycle of basil life (as explained to me by a reader the last time I wrote about it), it was starting to seem like it was now or never if I wanted to try making pesto.

So out I went to harvest the basil leaves. And I was pretty ruthless.

If you happen to know enough about basil to know whether I can expect it to grow back in, would you let me know? I really could not be dumber about this kind of thing.

Something else I couldn't be dumber about? The ingredients in pesto. I was shocked when Betty Crocker informed me that it's made of grated parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and basil.

Who knew?! (Okay, maybe everyone but me. But seriously, nuts and cheese? Wait...are pine nuts really nuts? Doesn't matter.)

Anyway, once the ingredients are assembled, the instructions are simple: blend.

Actually, I used the food processor function on our Cuisinart Duet (blender and mini food processor in one), which worked just fine.

After mixing for a few minutes, I took the lid off and immediately smelled the familiar scent of pesto -- which doesn't really (in my opinion, at least) smell like any of its ingredients. Pesto is mysterious.

And it sure is tasty on capellini.

But the best part? There's about a cup of pesto in an ice cube tray in the freezer.

21 July 2011

The Dry Creek Bed? Let's Call It Canyon Creek.

My favorite part of the process of creating a (faux) dry creek bed in front of the bunny room was -- sorry if this is kind of lame...news flash: I'm kind of lame -- spending time up close and personal with our Canyon Creek abelias. We bought three of them, as well as three kaleidoscope abelias, to go in the spots where our landscape designer had indicated boring old all-green-all-the-time dwarf pittosporums, and it's been a total treat to see their sweet little flowers emerge.

They're the bushes along the garage wall at the left of this picture, and as you can see, the flowers aren't too visible from a normal distance.

So although it was hard, hot work, being forced to hang out down among the flowers wasn't so bad. The Canyon Creeks have grown a ton since we bought them, and they have tons of tiny pinkish flowers:

The color looks nice against the stone on the house, and the gravel, too.

But mostly I just dig those little flowers all by themselves. And I love how they look pink, but it's really those tiny leaf-petal things around the flowers that are pink. The flowers are pretty much white.

Regardless, they add to the pink and green (my college colors) going on in our landscaping, and I love them.

The other abelias, which we planted across the front porch, are doing well but are definitely lagging behind a bit. Their branches are growing more slowly (but more consistently, so they're still round bushes, just a little bigger than when we bought them, whereas the Canyon Creeks have long, tentacle-like branches). And so far only one of the kaleidoscopes has only this little first sprig of flowers:

Plants seriously mystify me. I'm amazed that two totally different plants (okay, both abelias, but still) could have the exact same flowers...but in color combinations that make them look so different on the plant. Neat stuff.

20 July 2011

The Solution?

Earlier this week, I wrote about our drainage problem in front of the bunny room. With three rooflines coming together and shedding water into that little nook, a heavy rain could turn the area into a pond. Even after improving the grading, water still pooled, and rain falling from the gutters tended to erode the ground under the outlets:

On the garden tour this spring, I had seen this dry creek bed that I thought could be the solution we were searching for.

So we tried a modified version of that, placing river rock under the gutter outlets (soon to hold rain chains) to soften the fall of the water and prevent erosion. And that looked pretty nice:

And it looked good during a light storm, too:

But after a couple of heavy rains, we had watched all of the mulch we had placed around the few plants float out across the driveway, and I had figured out that a whole bed of mulch (our original plan) would hold too much moisture...until it all washed away....

So it was on to Plan B, which involved expanding the "creek bed" to the whole area -- essentially using gravel "mulch" in that entire space. After re-grading a bit (to build the eroded areas back up and restore the channel down the center), we laid landscaping fabric and, cartload by cartload, brought extra gravel from the back yard (where we put the seven cubic yards of gravel that we (surely over-) guesstimated we would need for the sides of the house and around the vegetable garden beds in back).

We worked around the plants (including a couple of new ones that we planted a month or so ago -- which, by the way, is not the time to plant anything in Austin).

Since it's been about a thousand degrees every day for the last six weeks or so, this has been another bit-by-bit-every-morning project (alternating with painting the screened porch). And as of last weekend, it's done:

(The front walkway is another project for another day/week/month.)

We decided to take the river rock all the way to the walls instead of starting them in the middle, right under the gutter outlets, and we added a bit more curve and plan to continue the "dry creek bed" on the other side of the walkway, where it will wander for a few feet before tapering off.

Now we're just waiting for the next storm to test it out (and probably tweak it a bit). We had a mini-stormlet yesterday, which made for slightly cooler but much more humid Splash and Dash last night. We didn't get enough rain to see how the dry creek bed will work out, but there was enough for the gravel to get washed off a bit and really show the color of the stones.

Now, I realize that's a lot of gravel, and not everyone will love it. Personally, it reminds me of Colorado, which always puts a smile on my face. But if it's too stark for you, rest assured, it will soften a lot over the next couple of years, as we plant more and everything expands until you will, hopefully, only be able to see the river rock (which we may reconfigure over time to look more like the inspiration picture above) and small pockets of gravel peeking out from among the abelias, columbines, lantanas, and whatever else grabs us as we think about planting next spring. So, if you've got some time, come along for the ride and we'll see where things end up a year or two from now.

18 July 2011

The Problem...

Last week, in my to-do list post, I mentioned creating a dry creek bed area in front of the bunny room. Here's what that's all about.

During construction last April, we had a rainstorm that clued me in to a water management issue that we were going to have to tackle:

The short-term plan, while the yard was still a heaping pile of ugly, involved placing our rain barrels under the gutters in that area to catch as much of the rain as possible and keep it from flooding the nook. This picture not only shows their gorgeousness, but also the three rooflines that come together in that area to create typhoon-erific conditions during heavy rains:

The problem is exacerbated by the too-small rain chain holes (not to mention the lack of rain chains), which I hope to have remedied soon.

Anyway, with so much water landing in the area between the entry and the garage, I thought we would need to put in a French drain or something to channel rain away from the house, but both landscape designers we talked to and our friend in the rainwater collection business all said we would be able to deal with it through improved grading. So when we rented the Bobcat, we were sure to pay extra attention to that area, as well as the yard in front of it, creating as much slope away from the house as our flat lot would allow. Fortunately, the Bobcat fit perfectly into the nook between the entry and the garage, so (with a lot of care, and driving really slowly) we were able to build that area up and create a gentle slope, and then a channel down the middle, to divert rain away.

The next rain tested our plan. Things were definitely looking better, but with water pummeling the ground (since we had taken away the rain barrels) and our newly installed edging (placed to delineate our someday front walkway) slowing the flow of water out of the area, water was still finding a way to trap itself closer to the house than we wanted.

Not only that, but the rain tended to carry away the mulch that we had spread around the barberries, columbines, and canyon creek abelias we had planted. Mulch ended up strewn across the driveway. Since we had planned to add a few more plants and fill the whole area in with mulch, that wasn't going to do.

At that point, we had one more trick up our sleeve, but it was becoming clear that wasn't going to be enough, so we restrategized and got to work, slowly but surely. And that brings us to this weekend.

Stay tuned for the solution (in a post later this week entitled, creatively, "The Solution").

15 July 2011

To Do

(In no particular order.)

Create dry creek bed area in front of bunny room
Put in front walkway
Replace fence

(And not necessarily a complete list.)

Finish painting screened porch, add flooring, and decorate
Plant back fence line
Install fountain

(Outside only.)

Build vegetable garden beds
Implement rainwater collection system
Plant sedum bed between screened porch and patio
Upgrade front porch flooring

(This is getting depressing.)

Make back patio out of pavers or something similar
Buy and place stepping stones (big)
Hang rain chains

(I'm going to stop now.)

13 July 2011

I Don't Watch The Bachelorette...

...but if I did*, here's what I would write about this week's episode:

One of the Bachelorette's suitors this season (Ryan) is a "solar energy executive." The show routinely plasters his profession on the screen whenever he has a close-up, but it hasn't really been an important detail until this episode, when he asked her how she feels about environmental issues. He couldn't see it, but as he was asking the question, she was already making a face that clearly said she wasn't a fan of such hippie nonsense. She recounted an incident with a previous boyfriend who broke up with her on the spot because she put a plastic bottle in the garbage. Ryan made clear that he wasn't so rigid, and she said she didn't know much about that kind of thing but that she was open to learning. He chose water heaters for this once-in-a-lifetime teaching moment in front of a national (international?) audience. And that seemed to be when the Bachelorette decided that there just wasn't a spark with him.

But what I was focused on was what he was actually saying about water heaters. He went on and on about how regular (tank) water heaters waste energy by keeping water warm all day, every day, so tankless water heaters (which only heat water when you need it) are far greener. As we discovered through our lengthy water heater decision-making process, that's not exactly true -- instantly heating water when you need it is so energy-intensive that tankless water heaters aren't necessarily the best green option. While we were considering every possible option for everything, we explored all of the water heater options (gas, tankless, condensing, solar, etc.) before finally settling on a regular old electric water heater. Well, not exactly. We went with a particularly well-insulated (and therefore energy-efficient) electric tank water heater that's tied into our geothermal heat pump, with the electric power essentially serving as a back-up.

Here's the water heater:

The copper piping at the top ties into the geothermal system in the attic. To illustrate how much the geothermal system contributes to our water heating, the "Energy Guide" sticker on the water heater (a Marathon model by Rheem) estimates the annual energy cost to power the water heater alone at a fairly appalling $497. In fact, our total electric usage for our entire first year in the house totaled only two or three hundred dollars more than that.

And connected at the bottom is our on-demand recirculating pump, which sends hot water right to each faucet when we need it so we don't waste water while waiting for it to warm up:

(More about that here.)

Anyway, tankless water heaters were the thing a few years back, but several other technologies have surpassed tankless units in green building in recent years. Maybe the Bachelorette was playing dumb but actually knew that and sent Ryan home because he's kind of behind the times?

Regardless, he was blindsided and completely crushed to be sent home mid-date. (Usually that happens at a "rose ceremony" with all of the contestants present, or at least on a date where the rules say he could be eliminated. This time that option wasn't on the table.) Weird, since two bachelors (out of six) were going to be sent home at the rose ceremony, so he had to know he only had a 67% chance of making it to the next week (hometown dates!), and only a 17% chance of actually winning the girl (which, as mentioned here, still doesn't guarantee a happy ending).

* ...which -- okay, I'll admit it -- I do...

12 July 2011

Running into Friends

Another weekend, another triathlon. This one was at the same course as the race I did a month ago, and each of my times (swim, first transition, bike, second transition, and run) were nearly identical, for a total difference of 34 seconds (this time was slower...d'oh!). So I guess at least I'm consistent.

In lieu of pictures from yesterday (I have none), I dug into the Green House archives and found these, taken before the Green House existed (even before we hatched our crazy buy-demo-design-rebuild plan). These pictures are from the New Orleans Half Ironman in 2009, when I had three very enthusiastic fans taking pictures the whole way. Here's one now:

(Before the race, wearing my Batman-like wetsuit. Very nervous. Long day ahead!)

Anyway, my time at this weekend's (short) race wasn't the important part. What made Sunday so special was running into someone from my (very tiny) college, who was doing her second triathlon. Amanda's first was actually my last race a couple of weeks ago, but we didn't spot each other that time. This weekend, she was wearing a Sweet Briar t-shirt, and it's such a small community of alumnae that I was pretty much obligated to approach her and say hi -- even though I didn't recognize her (we overlapped by a year and have attended a couple of alum events in Austin, so shame on me for not remembering). It was fun to catch up with her, and hopefully we'll have more fun times soon. She was a swimmer in college, and although she lives a good distance north of me, maybe we can swim together sometime.

(The swim in a half Ironman is supposed to be 1.2 miles long.
Rumor had it the course in New Orleans was actually 1.4 miles.)

(See the green caps? Those guys started three or four
minutes before us pink-cappers. Yeah, we're fast.)

(Swimming may look pretty and graceful, but the breathing part is more
like what I'd imagine an asthmatic hippo looks and sounds like.)

(Transition times count in triathlons, so as soon as I got out
of the water, I rushed to take my wetsuit off and get to my bike.)

This weekend was the third triathlon (out of only four I've done this season) that has involved a blast from the past. A few weeks ago, as I was packing up my equipment after the windiest (and therefore most torturous) race I've ever done, I ran into the sister of my good friend Terry (from Boulder, who I haven't seen in several years because her Army service has taken her to places like Iraq, South Korea, and Hawaii). I knew Virginia was living in the area, but I didn't know she did triathlons, so it was a total surprise to reconnect at the race.

(I don't remember being all smiley. Good for me. I sure wasn't smiling
when I was still on the bike three hours -- and 56 miles -- later.)

(I actually got a little teary as I started the run. Nearly four hours after the start,
the thought of running a half-marathon on bike-weary legs was just too much.)

And then there was the race where I met up with a former co-worker, who wasn't racing but was there with his adorable little girls to support his wife, who was doing her third triathlon after becoming enamored with the sport last fall.

(At least my body position was looking pretty good
a few miles into the run...'cause my face sure wasn't.)

And thinking about that race last fall reminds me that I actually gained a brand new friend at that same race, and while her schedule is pretty tight, we've enjoyed riding, running, and going to classes at the gym together.

(My legs loosened up a few miles in...but at the end -- more than six hours
after starting -- I wasn't feeling nearly as good as this picture would suggest.)

(So glad to be done...so glad to be done...
so glad to be done...where do I sign up for another?)

As much as I'd love to go back to New Orleans for the half again, for now I'm just focusing on improving my fitness for my last race of the season and the start of the fall/winter running season (which is really just training for next year's triathlon season).

Oh, and in case you're wondering, swimming in Lake Pontchartrain was lovely. Hands-down among the nicest water I've ever swum in. No kidding. (And I looked up the past participle of "swim," and it really is "swum.")